“Fear and hostility” towards religious values is leaving public debate impoverished, according to Andrew Bradstock, Director of the University of Otago’s Centre for Theology and Public Issues.
Professor Bradstock, who is returning shortly to Britain, said the media were often “indifferent” towards religious perspectives, and members of the public frequently feared that religious speakers sought to dominate or impose their views on others.
But there was a role for contributions from religious perspectives made “confidently and with conviction, but in a spirit of promoting general well-being”, rather than trying to defend a particular religion’s interests.
Contrary to arguments that the world was becoming inevitably more secular, religion was experiencing a “re-emergence”, Bradstock said, in a lecture at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies.
Religious perspectives had much to add to current debates, having the ability to imbue them with “a depth and moral gravity… that can take us beyond a debate that is stuck in arguing sectional interests”.
That did not make religious views an “alternative” to robust evidence, he said. Rather they brought “fresh concepts” and a way of asking different questions.
For example, in the debates on climate change, a quotation from Psalm 24, ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,’ helped suggest that the planet was something to be stewarded, not exploited.
Religious views also encouraged people to explore questions of virtue and morality, Bradstock said. Issues such as abortion were not value-free and could not be resolved without thinking about their underlying moral and religious implications.
People with religious convictions also had a right to be heard as a matter of justice, if for no other reason than that they were a significant part of the population and provided many of its social services.
Nor did they have to “translate” what they had to say into a form that removed all its specifically religious elements, he said. That would be to “discard the beneficial capacity of what they are trying to contribute”.
People with religious convictions had “the right to speak” rather than having to speak “in the right voice”, he added. For example, the idea that people were “created in the image of God” could not be fully conveyed in an argument about human rights.
Bradstock also suggested that the current definition of a “secular” society was too narrow. He urged a “procedural secularism”, in which religious convictions were not privileged but were acknowledged as representing an important moral basis for certain citizens.
This “noisier and untidy” secularism – “inclusive, not exclusive” – would create a richer set of public debates, he added. “Many of our public and political debates are quite shallow.”